Quest for the historical Jesus
- This article is about the history of academic Jesus research. See Historical Jesus for the discussion of the historical evidence of his existence, and Portraits of the historical Jesus for portraits of his life. For the book by Albert Schweitzer see The Quest of the Historical Jesus.
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The quest for the historical Jesus refers to academic efforts to provide a historical portrait of Jesus. Since the 18th century, three separate scholarly quests for the historical Jesus have taken place, each with distinct characteristics and based on different research criteria, which were often developed during each specific phase. These quests are distinguished from earlier approaches because they rely on the historical method to study biblical narratives. While textual analysis of biblical sources had taken place for centuries, these quests introduced new methods and specific techniques to establish the historical validity of their conclusions.
The enthusiasm shown during the first quest diminished after the 1906 criticism of Albert Schweitzer, who pointed out various shortcomings in the approaches used at the time. The second quest began in 1953 and introduced a number of new techniques, but reached a plateau in the 1970s. In the 1980s a number of scholars gradually began to introduce new research ideas, initiating a third quest characterized by the latest research approaches.
While there is widespread scholarly agreement on the existence of Jesus, and a basic consensus on the general outline of his life, the portraits of Jesus constructed in the quests have often differed from each other, and from the image portrayed in the gospel accounts. There are overlapping attributes among the portraits, and while pairs of scholars may agree on some attributes, those same scholars may differ on other attributes, and there is no single portrait of the historical Jesus that satisfies most scholars.
As the Enlightenment ended, various scholars in Europe began to go beyond textual analysis and the development of gospel harmonies and began to produce biographies of Jesus typically referred to as Lives of Jesus. These biographies attempted to apply some historical techniques to a harmonized version of the gospel accounts, and produced new overviews of the life of Jesus. These attempts at constructing a biography of Jesus came to be known as the first "quest for the historical Jesus", a term effectively coined by Albert Schweitzer's book which was originally titled "The Quest for the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede".
By late 19th century, hundreds of Lives of Jesus were written. Some of these were purely sensational: They were not produced because any new data had appeared, but because some people read and interpreted the gospels in new ways. These stories of the Lives of Jesus were often romanticized, highly psychological or included new elements which did not appear in any of the gospels or other historical documents. For example, Ernest Renan used the incident where Jesus rides a donkey during his Triumphal entry into Jerusalem to build a story in which Jesus the carpenter was a gentle prophet who had a donkey in Galilee and rode it while traveling between its different towns.
Mark Powell states that the production of these Lives of Jesus were typically driven by three elements: 1. the imposition of a grand scheme (e.g. Jesus as a reformer) which dictated the theme of the work and in terms of which the gospels were interpreted; 2. the exclusion of those parts of the gospel accounts that did not fit in the scheme; 3. the addition of new material which did not appear in any of the gospels to fill in the gaps in the story. Andreas J. Köstenberger states that in many cases these stories portrayed Jesus "like the questers themselves" rather than a first-century Jewish figure.
The underlying theme used by the authors of the various Lives of Jesus during the first quest varied. In some cases it aimed to praise Christianity, in other cases to attack it. One of the earliest notable publications in the field was by Hermann Reimarus (1694-1768) who portrayed Jesus as a less than successful political figure who assumed his destiny was to place God as the king of Israel. Reimarus wrote a treatise which rejected miracles and accused the Bible authors of fraud, but he did not publish this. Later, Gotthold Lessing (1729 – 1781) posthumously published Reimarus' thesis. Baron d'Holbach (1723-1789) who had no interest in recovering a historical Jesus but to criticize religion wrote "Ecce Homo -The History of Jesus of Nazareth" and published it anonymously in Amsterdam in 1769. The book was translated into English by George Houston, and published in 1799 and then 1813, for which Houston (who confessed himself to be the author) was condemned for blasphemy to two years in prison.
David Friedrich Strauss's (1808–1874) Life of Jesus was one of the first and most influential systematic analyses of the life story of Jesus, aiming to base it on unbiased historical research. Strauss viewed the miraculous accounts of Jesus' life in the gospels in terms of myths which had arisen as a result of the community's imagination as it retold stories and represented natural events as miracles. Among the works that appeared after Strauss Ernest Renan's book Vie de Jesus which combined scholarship with sentimental and novelistic psychological interpretation was very successful and had eight re-printings in three months. Renan merged gospel narratives with his own psychological interpretations, e.g. that Jesus preached a "sweet theology of love" in Galilee but turned into a revolutionary once he encountered the establishment in Jerusalem.
Johannes Weiss (1863 - 1914) and William Wrede (1859–1906) brought the eschatological aspects of the ministry of Jesus to the attention of the academic world. Both Weiss and Wrede were passionately anti-liberal and their presentations aimed to emphasize the unusual nature of the ministry and teachings of Jesus. Weiss wrote on the Messianic Secret theme in the Gospel of Mark and argued that it was a method used by early Christians to explain Jesus not claiming himself as the Messiah. Schweitzer himself also argued that all the 19th century presentations of Jesus had either minimized or neglected the apocalyptic message of Jesus, and he developed his own version of the profile of Jesus in the Jewish apocalyptic context. Schweitzer then became convinced that the search for a historical Jesus was futile, abandoned biblical scholarship and went to Africa as a medical missionary.
Schweitzer's work was preceded by Martin Kähler's book The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ which was published in 1896. Kähler argued that it was not possible to separate the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith and that in any case the key goal of biblical analysis should be to better understand the Christ of faith who had influenced history. Kähler's work appealed to both conservatives and liberals and its combined effect with Schweitzer's book effectively ended the first quest.
Period of "No Quest"
Schweitzer's 1906 critique undermined the previous attempts in historical Jesus research, and is often seen as the start of a period of "no quest" lasting until Ernst Käsemann's 1953 lecture which started the second quest. Ben Witherington states that at the end of the first quest, historical Jesus research was assumed to be dead, although that did not turn out to be the case.
Some scholars such as Paul Zahl argue that the last two paragraphs of Schweitzer's book aptly summarize the end of the first quest, Schweitzer stating "Jesus of Nazareth will not suffer himself to be modernized as an historical figure... He comes to us as One unknown". Zahl likens the first quest to the Scott expedition to Antarctica, and states that the first quest ended as a total disaster, slowing down academic efforts to pursue research into the historical Jesus. However, other scholars such as Stanley Porter or Dale Allison disagree with that assessment, or the separation in terms of these phases.
Stanley Porter states that Schweitzer's critique only ended the "romanticized and overly psychologized" studies into the life of Jesus, and other research continued. Dale Allison states that other research did take place during the so-called no quest phase, and the progress was continuous in that every year except 1919 a new academic book on Jesus was published. Maurice Casey states that although it may at first appear reasonable to call this a period of "no quest" that characterization is not accurate and in this period significant other progress was made, e.g. B. H. Streeter's work on Markan priority and Q source which affected future research.
A key figure in the relatively quiet period from 1906 to 1953 was Rudolf Bultmann, who was skeptical regarding the relevance and necessity of historical Jesus research and argued that the only thing we can or need to know about Jesus is the "thatness" (German: Dass) of his existence, and very little else. Bultmann argued that all that matters is the "thatness", not the "whatess" in that only that Jesus existed, preached and died by crucifixion matters, not what happened throughout his life. Bultmann was also a supporter of the study of the oral traditions that transmitted the gospels.
Bultmann believed that only a few scattered facts could be known about Jesus, and although a few things could be known about Jesus such a search was pointless for all that matters is following "the call of Jesus" which can only be known through an existential encounter with the word of God. Bultmann argued that the earliest Christian literature showed little interest in specific locations and that the study of Jesus through historical analysis was not only impossible, but unnecessary. However, in the end Bultmann did not totally close the door on historical research and by 1948 suggested the possibility of further investigation.
While the exact date for the start of the first or third quest may be questioned, the beginning of the second quest has a well known time and location, namely Ernst Käsemann's October 20, 1953 lecture titled "The Problem of the Historical Jesus", delivered to an annual gathering of alumni from the University of Marburg who, like Käsemann, has studied with Rudolf Bultmann.
Käsemann's lecture marked a departure from the teachings of his former professor Bultmann who emphasized theology and in 1926 had argued that historical Jesus research was both futile and unnecessary; although Bultmann slightly modified that position in a later book. Käsemann advanced the position that although the gospels may be interpreted for theological purposes, they still contain historical memories which can yield information about Jesus. This perspective effectively began what was then known as the "New Quest" and later came to be called the second quest for the historical Jesus. Most of the scholars involved in the second quest were either German or trained by Germans.
Käsemann's perspective that it is possible to know something about Jesus if the tools of historical analysis are applied in a systematic manner proved highly consequential, and inspired a number of scholars to develop new approaches to the study of the historical Jesus. One of the influential works that followed his approach was Günther Bornkamm's 1956 book Jesus of Nazareth and his well known statement that "what the Gospels report concerning the message, the deeds and the history of Jesus is still distinguished by an authenticity... these features point us directly to the earthly figure of Jesus" provided momentum for the second quest in the 1960s. James M. Robinson's 1959 book A New Quest for the Historical Jesus was reprinted numerous times, indicating the high level of interest in the subject during the 1960s.
In order to analyze biblical passages, Käsemann introduced the criterion of dissimilarity, that compares a gospel passage (e.g. a statement by Jesus) to the Jewish context of the time, and if dissimilar, places weight on its being on safe ground. During the second quest the criterion of embarrassment was also introduced. This criterion states that a group is unlikely to invent a story that would be embarrassing to themselves. For instance, this criterion argues that the early Christian Church would have never wanted to invent the kernel of the story about the Baptism of Jesus because John baptised for the remission of sins, and Jesus was viewed as without sin, hence the story served no purpose, and would have been an embarrassment given that it positioned John above Jesus. While the baptism of Jesus itself may be a historical event, the presence of the dove and the voice from Heaven may be later embellishments to the original happening. Marcello Craveri's "Life of Jesus" in 1967, based on the Dead Sea Scrolls, argued that the claims to divinity made by the historical Jesus were strictly limited and not unusual for a Jew of that generation. Much of the stronger claims, and the emphasis on the redeeming power of Christ's death on the Cross, could be seen as reworkings by St. Paul, who was probably influenced strongly by the Graeco-Roman traditions.
By the early 1970s the initial momentum of the second quest had all but disappeared. A number of scholars, attribute the end of this quest to the diminishing role of Bultmann's ideas, Ben Witherington stating: "as the towering influence of Bultmann and the enthusiasm for existentialism began to wane, so did the enthusiasm for the Second Quest". Geza Vermes states: "Owing to the colossal influence of Bultmann on German, and subsequently through his former students on North American, New Testament learning, the clock of real historical research stopped for half a century" and that it started again only after that influence had ended. Paul Zahl states that while the second quest made significant contributions at the time, its results are now mostly forgotten, although not disproven.
The second Quest reached a plateau in the 1970s and by the 1980s a third Quest had started and gained a formal following. Unlike the second Quest, the third Quest had no well defined beginning and emerged as a number of scholars presented new approaches within a relatively short time of each other. In 1992 N. T. Wright coined the term "third Quest" to refer to these new approaches.
Beyond the previous criteria of multiple attestation, dissimilarity (also called discontinuity) and embarrassment, a number of other criteria have been developed through the third quest. Primary among these are:
- The criterion of historical plausibility was introduced in 1997. This principle analyzes the plausibility of an event in terms of components such as contextual plausibility and consequential plausibility, i.e. the historical context needs to be suitable, as well as the consequences. In recent research, the criterion of plausibility has found favor among scholars over the criterion of dissimilarity, and accounts that fit the historical context are viewed as more likely to be valid.
- The criterion of rejection and execution was developed in 1985. It is quite different from other criteria and does not directly point to an individual saying or act of Jesus as authentic, but focuses attention on the fact that Jesus was rejected by the Jews and executed by the Romans and then asks what words and deeds would fit into this scenario. John P. Meier states that this criterion draws attention that a Jesus who did not challenge the authorities of his time would have been unlikely to have been crucified, and thus helps evaluate the sayings of Jesus in that context.
- The criterion of congruence (also called cumulative circumstantial evidence) is a special case of the older criterion of coherence. The criterion of coherence, also called the criterion of consistency and conformity, looks back at what has already been established as historical, and tests if a new hypothesis is consistent and coherent with what is already known. Thus this criterion is not simply applied to ancient texts as a star but looks back at the results of modern analysis and considers its coherence and consistency. The criterion of congruence lends support to a hypothesis if observations from other data suggest similar conclusions.
A number of other proposed criteria are viewed as dubious and unreliable by third quest scholars. These include the presence of traces of Aramaic proposed by J. Jeremias which evaluates a biblical saying based on the presence of possibly Aramaic vocabulary or grammar; and the similar criterion of the Palestinian environment which considers a saying authentic if it fits in the Palesinian setting of Jesus' time. The criterion of the vividness of narration suggested that a saying expressed in more vivid language than the rest of the surrounding text, it may be an eyewitness declaration; but the criterion is generally rejected by scholars.
A new characteristic of the modern aspects of the third quest has been the role of archeology and James Charlesworth states that few modern scholars now want to overlook the archaeological discoveries that clarify the nature of life in Galilee and Judea during the time of Jesus. A further characteristic of the third quest has been its interdisciplinary and global nature of the scholarship. While the first two quests were mostly by European Protestant theologians, the third quest has seen an worldwide influx of scholars from multiple disciplines, e.g. Jewish scholars involved in historical Jesus research have contributed their detailed knowledge of Second Temple Judaism as the backdrop for the third quest.
Historical interpretations of Jesus
While there is widespread scholarly agreement on the existence of Jesus as a historical figure, the portraits of Jesus constructed during the three quests have often differed from each other, and from the dogmatic image portrayed in the gospel accounts. Amy-Jill Levine states that despite the differing portraits, there is a general scholarly consensus on the basic outline of Jesus' life in that most scholars agree that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, debated Jewish authorities on the subject of God, performed some healings, taught in parables, gathered followers, and was crucified by Roman prefect Pontius Pilate.
The many differences of emphasis among mainstream interpretations in the third quest may be grouped together based on a number of primary interpretations of Jesus as variously an apocalyptic prophet, charismatic healer, Cynic philosopher, Jewish Messiah or prophet of social change. But there is little scholarly agreement on a single interpretation of his life, or the methods needed to construct it. There are, however, overlapping attributes among the accounts and pairs of scholars which may differ on some attributes may agree on others. These groupings reflect the essential feature of each portraits and the accounts often include overlapping elements, for example there are a number of scholars, including Crossan and Wright, who are otherwise critical of each other but whose interpretations agree that Jesus was not "primarily apocalyptic" but still believe that Jesus preached such a message, while others (e.g. Borg and Mack) differ on that issue. The third quest has thus witnessed a fragmentation of the scholarly interpretations in which no unified picture of Jesus can be attained at all.
In his 1906 book The Quest of the Historical Jesus, Albert Schweitzer noted the similarities of the portraits to the scholars who construct them, and stated that they are often "pale reflections of the researchers" themselves. John Dominic Crossan states that the trend has continued, and summarized the situation by stating that many authors writing about the life of Jesus will "do autobiography and call it biography".
- Christ myth theory
- Historical background of New Testament
- Historical Jesus
- Historicity of Jesus
- Jesus as myth
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- Amy-Jill Levine in The Historical Jesus in Context edited by Amy-Jill Levine et al. Princeton University Press ISBN 978-0-691-00992-6 page 4: "There is a consensus of sorts on a basic outline of Jesus' life. Most scholars agree that Jesus was baptized by John, debated with fellow Jews on how best to live according to God's will, engaged in healings and exorcisms, taught in parables, gathered male and female followers in Galilee, went to Jerusalem, and was crucified by Roman soldiers during the governorship of Pontius Pilate"
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